WASHINGTON — If the weather is perfect, say a temperate day in spring or fall, with a gentle breeze and a few clouds in the sky to break the glare of the sun, then the National Mall is a lovely place. But look at how locals use it the rest of the year: People flock to benches along the edges, pedestrians and joggers tend to the shady paths under the trees, while people coming to visit the museums move promptly from the Metro to their destination, avoiding the Mall altogether.
The Mall can be beautiful, and it offers postcard views of the city’s most recognizable buildings. But it is also open, barren, exposed and terribly formal. It is a powerful landscape but not a charming one.
For charm, you must cleave to the edges of the great greensward, where there is a horticultural memory of what the Mall once was, and might have been. Clustered along the Mall and its surrounding parkland are small gardens. Some fill interstitial spaces, others are attached to museums or institutional buildings, and others are part of a new generation of memorials that have been redirected by planning rules off the Mall itself.
The best of them break with the early 20th-century imperialistic grandeur of the Mall to offer amenable urban escapes, quiet spaces with shade and a sense of leafy enclosure. And in that, they recall what much of the Mall looked like in the 19th century: a romantic landscape of trees, flowers, curving paths and carriage ways.
Today, these gardens feel like pockets of resistance. To understand their power, walk the Mall for a half-hour on a hot day, then duck into the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, which fills a narrow strip of land between the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arts and Industries Building. Opened in 1988, this space was slated to become a parking lot. But instead, it became one of the city’s most lovely hidden gems, a short, serpentine path of greenery that is the aesthetic opposite of the Mall. The Mall is straight and open, while this little parcel is full of curves and nooks. The Mall is monocultural, while the earth here teems with a diversity of plant life. The Mall focuses the eyes on a few big, symbolic architectural monuments, while the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is all about the small details of organic life.
The monumental core of the city could be full of gardens like these, but all too often the default to parking, especially around the Capitol, wins the day. On the slopes of Capitol Hill, and around its base, parking has corrupted civic space that could be green, environmentally constructive and easy to use. Even a small gesture can work wonders.
Across the wide expanse of Independence Avenue SW from the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is Earth Day Park, its homelier twin along the axis of the Ninth Street Expressway. It is less green, less tended and more basic in its plantings, and the noise of cars is ever present. But it is land reclaimed from the nihilism of concrete and one is thankful for it, warts and all. The park also leads to Hancock Park behind the Federal Aviation Administration building, a tree-filled rectangle that wants some love, but is delightful, nonetheless, for being so hidden and so off the usual tourist’s track.
The older buildings along the Mall were often raised above street level, on plinths, a now out-of-fashion design idea that nevertheless encouraged the incorporation of garden spaces that stand apart from the civic topography. Some of these offer ideal escapes. Along the south face of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building are two large fountains, surrounded by garden enclosures, and you might pass by them without noticing how inviting they are. If you want to eat a sandwich, or just take a break from walking, climb the steps and find space on one of the benches nestled in the embrace of the old, neoclassical building. The Mall and all its tumult will seem a thousand miles away.
Some of the grander buildings along the north side of the Mall also offer green hideaways. Along Constitution Avenue from 19th to 23rd streets NW, are several gardens, some mere ornaments to the institutional facades they complement, but others genuinely inviting. The tone of National Academy of Sciences’ front yard is set by Albert Einstein himself, whose statue sits rumpled, and at ground level, in the southwest corner of its green space. On the other side of the front garden is a lovely outdoor arbor.
It was a challenge to create the Mall, which required significant destruction of existing buildings, old trees and park land. Since then, and with only a few exceptions, the Mall has been kept open and the line of sight unobstructed. But, rather like swelling around a wound, parks have burgeoned along the great gash of green. There are even stretches of the Mall where you can walk between parks that are almost contiguous, and if you have an afternoon, it’s worth the challenge: See the Mall without stepping foot on it.
Try this path
• Start at the Bartholdi Fountain, which sits in a small park at the base of Capitol Hill.
• Continue into the Botanic Garden, where the outdoor garden space has been maturing and filling out to the point that it is genuinely inviting.
• Now look across the street at the construction site of the Eisenhower Memorial, where there will be a new expanse of green space when the project is finished.
• Continue into the gardens of the National Museum of the American Indian, some of the best in the city, with a fountain that will transport you to a canyon in the Sierra Nevada or a waterfall on an untamed river.
• Keep going, past the National Air and Space Museum, to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden and then to the large, formal square of the Enid A. Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Castle.
• Finally, duck into the Freer Gallery of Art to admire the garden courtyard in its center.
Now you have walked most of the length of the space officially known as the Mall (which stretches from the Capitol to the Washington Monument), and except for a few street crossings and bare patches, you have been within garden spaces that are made to a human scale.
Wasn’t that better than walking down the center of that big open space, full of tourists, raked by the sun and full of the cacophony of ice cream trucks?